J.J. Wright, who has been Director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir since 2017, has established himself as an eclectic and prolific musician, composer, and director in both jazz and sacred music. Trained in jazz at the New School for Jazz in NYC, he studied sacred music in Rome, where he researched and wrote his dissertation on early Baroque oratorio. He also studied at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and interned with the Sistine Chapel Choir.
In November 2016, his composition O Emmanuel debuted at the top of the Billboard Classical Charts where it remained for eight weeks. His Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration incorporated improvisation and popular music with congregational singing. (We conversed about that album in this November 2019 CWR interview.)
His new project is The Passion, which was recorded in Jerusalem by the Notre Dame Choir, directed by Wright. This major production was developed by a collaborative team of professional artists and musicians over a three-year period, and was produced by three-time Grammy-award winning songwriter and producer Joe Henry.
Wright corresponded with CWR recently about The Passion while traveling from Los Angeles back to his home in Indiana, where he lives with his wife and four children.
CWR: The Passion is quite ambitious, not just in scale but also logistically. How would you describe it, in terms of concept, scope, scale, and musical approach?
JJ Wright: The Passion is kind of like an old-school radio play—there are spoken “lead” roles (John and Mary Magdalene are the primary narrators) alongside choral music and singer-songwriter style songs. It runs about 95-minutes in length and is performed by the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir.
We just released the album version of The Passion, which we recorded during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem last May, and was produced by Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry. The performing forces are two choirs (the “full chorus” which is comprised of about 40 singers and the Apostles Chorus, made up of 12 singers); the spoken roles of John the Beloved, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Jesus, Judas, Pilate, and Claudia; sung roles for soloists (“Memory” and “Heart”); and an instrumental ensemble of piano, bass, guitar, cello, violin, and synthesizer.
For our upcoming performance tour, we’ve added a couple new elements including lighting and projection design, which really bring the story and piece to life in an immersive and evocative way. We’ve also created a beautiful lyric video of the release that will stream continuously for all of Lent.
The piece tells the story from the perspective of Jesus’s disciples in the Upper Room on Holy Saturday. Their leader and best friend has just been murdered and many of these same disciples fled their friend in His greatest need. Now they’re locked in a room, fearing for their own lives while they grieve their friend in sorrow. Using “Memory”, who functions like the “Evangelist” in a traditional Passion Play, the disciples take turns recalling the events that led to Jesus’s death, starting in Bethany with Mary anointing Jesus, and moving through Palm Sunday, the Footwashing and Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter’s Denial, the trial before Pilate, and ultimately Jesus’s carrying of the cross, crucifixion, death, and burial.
The Passion gospel is inherently performative in that it actively invites us into the story as witnesses and participants. The clearest example of this comes from our liturgical practice during Holy Week, where we read the Passion gospel on Palm Sunday and Good Friday (and at most parishes, this is done with multiple readers). There’s a centuries-long tradition in devotional practice and sacred music in particular of taking this ritual even further by setting the story to the stage, to music, or both, with the most famous examples being J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions, or, in more recent times, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, and even Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
CWR: How did the basic idea come about? What is the central goal and focus?
JJ Wright: Given that we’re standing on the shoulders of a long-standing tradition when it comes to setting the Passion artistically, we spent a lot of time before we even wrote a single note trying to connect to what the Passion has to say now, in 2023. My own way into the story was in researching the clergy sexual abuse crisis and trying to understand how something so awful could fit into the world, and even more so, the Church. As I spoke with survivors, clergy, therapists, and psychologists about abuse, I started to understand that the Passion holds and represents all of the hardest parts about human existence—betrayal and deception (Judas betraying his friend), cover-up (Peter denying that he knew Jesus), wrongful accusation and conviction, doubt, torture, etc.— it’s all in there. When I connected this back to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, these same themes emerged. Jesus’s response though was not to run from these horrors, though; he embraced them and invited his friends to stay with him through it all.
Ultimately, Jesus’s death and resurrection have defeated sin, but we’re still left to contend with being present to these “hard things” and somehow finding God through it all.
As a liturgical choir, one of our ongoing questions has been to ask how telling the Passion story connects to our weekly ministry of singing Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. We responded in two ways: first, with everything happening the world right now, the Passion enabled us to immerse ourselves in a ministerial environment where we could invite the students to talk about “hard things”, which included everything from clergy sexual abuse, to racial and environmental justice, the role of women in the Church, and fundamental questions of personal faith and belief.
The incredible thing about the Passion was that these questions were inherently grounded in one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith—that Jesus’s Passion, death and Resurrection have redeemed the world—an unapologetic proclamation of hope in the world. The Passion created an environment where we could talk about these hard things without anyone ever getting “over exposed”. Once you develop a little bit of familiarity with the story, you can place yourself within it and talk about your own experience through the experience of the characters within it.
Second, as a liturgical choir, we return week after week to the Eucharistic table; the Eucharist is the lasting sacrament and sign that Jesus left in order for us to grow closer to him. In response to the difficulty of the Passion, God gives us communion to persevere. All through The Passion, Eucharistic imagery and theology are ever-present. And the final song of the piece is called “Drawn Back to the Table” (Through Him, With Him, In Him), representing our own commitment to Communion.
CWR: Were you the main composer?Who are some of the other key writers, producers, and so forth?
JJ Wright: I am one of the creators, along with my colleague and friend Tristan Cooley. Tristan and I created a version of The Passion that never saw the light of day because of COVID. When we were forced to reimagine the piece, we started inviting more people into the creative process, beginning with students from Folk Choir itself. We worked hand in hand with our students to craft lyrics, poetry, melodies, and harmonies, and because of this collaborative approach were able to create something that is much bigger than any one of us.
Additionally, we invited two other composers to create additional music for the work, Franky Rousseau and Ike Sturm (who also play guitar and bass on the record respectively). The main thing that I hope a reader takes from this answer though is that no single person created The Passion—it was and continues to be a labor of love for (now) hundreds of collaborators.
CWR: The Notre Dame Folk Choir was founded in the 1970s, and has become well-known for its broad repertoire. How many students are a part of the Choir and what are some of the other pieces it has performed in recent years?
JJ Wright: We have approximately 60 students in the Folk Choir that come from all majors and grade-levels within the tai-campus community (University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College, and Holy Cross College). We recently celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the Folk Choir in 2020-21. In the height of COVID and when choral singing was essentially impossible, we constructed a recording booth in our rehearsal room and taught our students how to use recording software so that they could track their voices one-at-a-time on a recording project.
They Tell Me of A Home is an album of ten newly-arranged versions of popular-Catholic hymns and that have been staples of the choir’s repertoire during the last forty years. Prior to this project, we released Catch the Spirit, which was a celebration of African American and African sacred music, recorded after a pilgrimage with our students to the Holy Cross Missions in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
CWR: The Choir went to the Holy Land and recorded this 95-minute-long work there. What was that like? What was involved? And how did performing it close to where the actual events of Christ’s Passion took play affect everyone involved?
JJ Wright: It was an unbelievable experience. We traveled through the Holy Land on a “Passion” pilgrimage; Tristan created a Holy Land devotional guide that brought the words of the Passion together with prayers and site visits to connect our performative and creative experience with the place and an experience of “lived-faith”. Recording the piece in Jerusalem made the Passion story real in a way that nothing else could.
For example, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and prayed around the site of the crucifixion and anointing stone the morning that we recorded the crucifixion and anointing scenes. Our hope is that in listening to the album, we can share some of the immediacy and inspiration that the Holy Land offered to us during our pilgrimage.
CWR: You and the Choir will soon be going to tour. What can you tell us about that?
JJ Wright: We are thrilled to be able to share The Passion on tour (and in some truly iconic venues) in Naples, FL; Fort Lauderdale, FL (Lauderhill Performing Arts Center); New York City (The Town Hall); Washington, DC (Strathmore Music Center); and Pittsburgh, PA (Byham Theatre). We’re also mounting an outdoor performance at the University of Notre Dame on Good Friday, which we’re also planning to livestream.
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